The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The original Lincoln memorial stands forgotten in D.C.’s Judiciary Square

The original Lincoln Monument, seen from City Hall. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
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People from across the country came to the Mall last weekend for an early celebration of the centennial of the Lincoln Memorial, which turns 100 on Monday. Barely more than two miles away, the original Lincoln memorial stood lonely and ignored in Judiciary Square.

That monument, erected in 1868, is the oldest surviving public statue of Abraham Lincoln in the United States. Many consider it the best likeness of the Great Emancipator ever made in marble. The statue’s history is a story of survival: removed twice, renovated twice, damaged multiple times, abandoned for two years and replaced after a president’s intervention — yet still it stands, the tribute of the residents of the capital city to its fallen president.

“The statue forms a personal testimonial of those who knew and loved Lincoln and contains more sentiment than any other statue in the city of Washington,” said U.S. Rep. Edward J. King of Illinois in 1920, as he and others fought to restore the statue to its place in front of the D.C. courthouse after its removal the year before.

“It is a better likeness of Lincoln than anything in plaster, stone, marble, or bronze that I have ever seen, and I have seen about all that have ever been made,” artist Freeman Thorp said in 1921. “Some have been made that unquestionably are great works of art, but the best of them are not accurate likenesses of him. This one is to those who, like myself, knew Lincoln, pleasing to look at because it is accurately modeled, and in its simple truth is in keeping with the unassuming man we loved.”

As reporter George Kennedy stated in 1953, “The stone figure in front of the courthouse is a bit of the real Lincoln.”

The birth of a monument

Just nine days after Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, the Washington city council introduced a resolution to create a committee to “devise measures for the erection of a monument in the City of Washington to the memory of the late President Lincoln.” The resolution was approved, and the Lincoln National Monument Association (NLMA) was formed to carry out the task.

As implied by the association’s name, the monument was to be national and grandiose in scope, paid for by donations from U.S. citizens. Similar associations popped up in cities and states across the country, however, and the NLMA’s fundraising effort fell far short of its goals, with almost all the donations coming from D.C. residents. One of the few donations from outside Washington was an $1,800 contribution from John T. Ford, the former owner of Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln had been shot.

Ultimately, the NLMA raised just $7,000. So the plan changed from a national monument to a local one from D.C. residents. The size and scope were scaled down, and artists were encouraged to submit proposals.

The committee selected a proposal by D.C. sculptor and marble worker Lot Flannery. Flannery was actually in the audience at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot. (He was also called to be a juror in the trial of Lincoln assassination conspirator John H. Surratt in June 1867, but he told the court he had already formed an opinion of the case, so he was dismissed.)

Flannery’s design for the Lincoln Monument was for a 36-foot-high memorial made of white Italian marble, with an eight-foot statue of the president on a four-foot pedestal atop an 18-foot column upon a six-foot octagonal base, all surrounded by an iron railing. The statue represented Lincoln standing, as though giving a speech, with his right arm slightly extended and his index finger pointing, while the left hand rests on a fasces (a bundle of sticks bound with a ribbon of stars, a Roman symbol of leadership).

“We have conversed with those who knew Mr. Lincoln best, both of this city and of Springfield, and they are unanimous in the opinion that Mr. Flannery’s statue is the most faithful likeness of our martyred President ever produced by an artist’s chisel,” the National Republican newspaper declared.

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The location selected for the monument was in front of the Washington City Hall (today the District of Columbia Court of Appeals), at the intersection of 4½ Street NW and Indiana and Louisiana avenues. It placed the Great Emancipator in front of a building that was once a slave market and, for 90 days in 1862, the site where city enslavers could request compensation for freeing the people they had enslaved, as directed under the city abolition law signed by Lincoln that April.

‘To be seen by generations long to come’

Exactly three years after Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1868, an estimated 20,000 people gathered in front of the city hall to witness the monument’s dedication. All federal and municipal offices were closed, as were city schools, and flags flew at half-mast, while cannons boomed every half-hour. According to newspaper reports, people filled the streets, rooftops, windows and even treetops. Thousands of the city’s Black residents, mostly formerly enslaved, also showed up to honor Lincoln (although they had to stand behind the monument and the speakers’ platform).

The platform held 400 dignitaries. President Andrew Johnson presided, but no members of the House or Senate were present, because they were required to attend Johnson’s impeachment trial.

After a parade to city hall, the event started with a prayer and music from the 12th Infantry band. The main speaker was Benjamin Brown French, commissioner of public buildings under Lincoln.

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“Here it stands, as it were, in the plaza of the city; and here it will stand, we hope, to be seen by generations long to come,” French said.

Johnson pulled a cord to uncover the statue. Every head tilted upward to see the life-size image of Lincoln more than 30 feet in the air, and “vociferous cheers” came from the crowd.

When asked later why he put Lincoln’s statue upon an 18-foot pedestal, Flannery told the Baltimore Sun, “I resolved and did place it so high that no assassin’s hand could ever again strike him down.”

Removal, return and rededication

For 51 years, this statue stood in front of the old city hall. It was the second public statue of Lincoln in the United States; the first, made of bronze, was erected in San Francisco in 1867 and destroyed by the Great Fire in 1906.

But in late 1919, the city courthouse and grounds were set to be remodeled, and the U.S. Fine Arts Commission recommended the Lincoln Monument be taken down.

Col. Clarence S. Ridley, director of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, told The Washington Post that the statue “interferes with the architectural beauty of the courthouse on account of its position and general design,” and that it was “out of alignment” with the plans for improving the courthouse, namely because it was too tall and it was not in line with the center of the courthouse building.

The plan was to dismantle the monument and move the pieces to the government propagating gardens south of the Washington Monument, where they would stay until “otherwise disposed of.” Some ideas of where to move the statue included the ruins of Fort Stevens, where Lincoln came under fire during the Civil War, the campus of Howard University and Nancy Hanks Lincoln Park in Indiana.

Reports of the statue’s impending removal caused barely a stir in Washington. But once the monument was actually taken down over the course of a month, a firestorm of public vitriol quickly led to congressional hearings.

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During the hearings in April 1920, it was revealed that the monument, once removed, was not placed in the government propagating gardens, but was unceremoniously discarded in the courthouse basement.

The next year, newly inaugurated President Warren G. Harding said that he favored restoring the statue in front of the courthouse. Artist Freeman Thorp gave the sentiment further impetus when he found the displaced monument — not in the courthouse basement, but lying outdoors, roughly crated, by the banks of the Tidal Basin behind the old bureau of engraving.

Finally, in October 1923, Flannery’s statue, cleaned of three years of weathering, was re-erected on the concrete plaza at the foot of the southern entrance to the courthouse — just a few feet north of its original location. (Unfortunately, it was damaged on its way there: One of Lincoln’s coat lapels broke off.)

Shortly after its return, Associate Justice Wendell Phillips Stafford of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, whose courtroom overlooked the monument, wrote a poem titled “The Courthouse Lincoln Speaks”:

Well, here I am once more in my old place,
I’m rather glad; I like old things—
Old clothes to wear, old neighbors and old books,
And truth and justice, oldest things of all.

A rededication ceremony for the Lincoln Monument, with an oration by Harding, was scheduled for April 15, 1923. This date is engraved on the monument itself, although incorrect. The event was moved to June 21, 1923, because a new marble pedestal was not yet completed, but for unknown reasons, no ceremony ever occurred. The monument was simply put back in place.

For the next 86 years, Lincoln stood vigil in front of the courthouse. In 1929, he lost some fingers from his right hand to the vibrations of heavy traffic around him. Years later, he lost more fingers to multiple acts of vandalism. Ultimately, the entire right hand fell off and had to be reconstructed. (Today, if you look closely, you can see the hand is a bit too large compared to the rest of the statue.)

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In 2006, the Lincoln Monument was put in storage again because of renovations to the courthouse behind it. It was replaced and rededicated on Feb. 15, 2009 — exactly 141 years after it was originally installed.

While today the Lincoln Memorial is the grandest and best-known monument to Lincoln, Flannery’s Lincoln statue in Judiciary Square is arguably more notable as a likeness and for the sentiment with which it was created.

As the National Republican wrote after the 1868 dedication ceremony: “All who visit Washington from our own and foreign lands, may now have the opportunity to look upon the accurately defined lineaments of that great man who served his country in that hour of extremest peril. … Let all who love their country, who venerate a pure life, noble purposes, and heroic deeds, go to the front of our City Hall and gaze upon the beautiful monument upon apex of which stands the marble statue of Abraham Lincoln.”

Jason Emerson is a Lincoln historian and freelance writer. Visit his website at JasonEmerson.com.

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